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Dole and Gingrich Get Rude Awakening : Politics: The GOP leaders endorsed Clinton’s aid plan for Mexico, but many Republicans are following the beat of their own drummer.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the privacy of a well-appointed meeting room in a far corner of the Capitol, a group of GOP senators demonstrated that there are definite limits to the power and influence that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole can expect to wield in the new Congress.

And it had to be something of an awakening for Gingrich and Dole. Just as President Clinton has learned painfully over the last two years, being a leader does not mean that the troops always will follow in lock step--not even in this obsessed, GOP-dominated Congress.

The immediate issue on the table at that meeting was the year’s first major foreign policy debate--aid to Mexico. Dole and Gingrich had endorsed Clinton’s desire to help Mexico with its currency crisis. But these Republicans were openly, if reluctantly, defying their leadership by opposing the $40-billion loan guarantee plan.

“I respect the fact that they are our leaders. But every senator and congressman and congresswoman here has to speak for themselves,” said Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.).

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“That’s absolutely right,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“Certainly they got ahead of some of their own members a little bit,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Gingrich and Dole.

“But that’s also one of the qualities you want in leaders. . . . And yet one of the conditions of being a leader is that you have followers,” he added.

Many Republicans--and many Democrats too--are skeptical of the loan guarantee proposal. They are particularly concerned about whether there would be adequate collateral. Others are demanding that conditions be attached to any aid package, such as requiring Mexico to police its borders and an assortment of economic and labor reforms.

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Many Republicans, to be sure, have competing ideas on other issues, too, especially on the specifics of welfare reform, congressional term limits and the restrictiveness of a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.

But the question of helping Mexico is more urgent because of the uneasy financial situation in that country.

Yet two weeks after Gingrich and Dole emerged from a White House meeting and urged swift U.S. action to help stabilize Mexico’s economy, many Republicans are still meticulously searching for their own alternatives rather than getting behind the President’s proposal, which Dole and Gingrich implicitly backed.

That process is not only delaying congressional action on assistance to Mexico but may well produce an aid package bearing little resemblance to what Clinton, Dole and Gingrich had in mind during their Jan. 12 meeting.

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Indeed the entire notion of aid to Mexico--seemingly a given just two weeks ago--is now “very fragile,” a top congressional GOP staff member warned.

“If this loan guarantee goes down, it’s not going to be pretty,” Ornstein said. “There will be implications for Clinton and the leaders of both parties--because every time you push on an issue and lose, it has repercussions.”

“It seems that everyone is dumping on Clinton for not being able to produce,” said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution. “But frankly, the same is true of the congressional leadership of both parties.”

For their part, the Republican leaders and their allies concede that support from the rank and file is less than expected. But they blame that on the White House, saying that the President has failed to generate much support from members of his own party--thus causing GOP support for the loan guarantees to evaporate.

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“We had them initially,” Dole said in an interview, referring to Republican support. But that backing has significantly eroded in the absence of stronger Democratic backing, the Kansas Republican said.

“The fact is, the President’s own leadership in Congress has not come on board,” added Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas).

“The surprise to us isn’t that more Republicans aren’t on board,” said a senior GOP aide. “The surprise has been that so few Democrats are on board.”

On the other hand, however, according to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.): “There are some (Republicans) who just don’t agree” with the Administration and Gingrich and Dole.

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Several other GOP senators and representatives said in interviews this week that they think Gingrich and Dole have gotten too far ahead of the rank-and-file on the issue.

“They went out and now have to come back and fill the (support) gap,” said one Western senator who did not want to be identified. “I don’t know if they can do it, frankly.”

“The Administration’s plan is in trouble, and we are looking at alternatives,” said Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who also chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee and was one of about 10 Republican senators who met privately Monday afternoon to explore alternatives.

A recurring theme in that meeting, participants said, was that Clinton’s proposal could merely perpetuate unsound Mexican economic policies, and that deeper, more systemic reforms need to be considered.

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‘Contract With America’

* The full text of the Republican “contract with America” is available on the TimesLink on-line service. Also available are biographies of Newt Gingrich and up-and-coming GOP leaders. Sign on and click “Special Reports” in the Nation & World section.

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